LEWISTON – Since his Pierce Street apartment was destroyed in a fire on May 3, Ali Sheikh, his wife and their 11 children have been homeless.
Every few days they have had to pack up and move to another temporary place, first a makeshift shelter at Lewiston High School, then another shelter at Androscoggin Bank Colisee, and then three different hotel rooms.
On Friday, Sheikh’s family finally moved into a more permanent space, a three-bedroom apartment on Knox Street that will be their new home. They arrived just as a local moving company was filling it with new furniture purchased with donated money.
“Even though we lost what we had before, we are really happy here,” said Sheikh, a Somali who moved to Maine with his wife in 2005 after living in a refugee camp in Kenya for 16 years.
“Top, bottom and in-between, people have really helped us,” he said through an interpreter.
Since April 29, the former mill town has experienced three large fires that destroyed several apartment buildings downtown, displacing nearly 200 people.
On Friday, volunteers organized by Catholic Charities and the Emergency Management Agency of Androscoggin County helped seven families move into new apartments. A few more families are scheduled to be moved Saturday.
Almost every family displaced by the fires has now been placed in a new home, said Lewiston City Manager Edward Barrett.
He said $180,000 has been raised for the Lewiston Fire Relief Fund, which is being administered by the United Way of Greater Portland. Nearly 300 people contributed, and other groups also raised money to buy supplies and furnishings. The state gave $80,000.
People have also donated time and services, such as Bisson Moving & Storage from Westbrook, which on Friday donated two trucks and moving crews.
“Everybody will remember the fires,” Barrett said, “but they will also remember how people came together to provide assistance to their friends and neighbors, be they old Mainers or new Mainers.”
The city is aggressively trying to demolish scores of properties that fell victim to the housing crash and whose owners couldn’t afford their mortgages or failed to turn a profit in a housing market where poverty levels are among the highest in the state.
More than 80 buildings in the city are vacant. Barrett said. Vacant properties pose a greater fire risk because people break into them and start fires to stay warm, Barrett said.
He said the city identified all the vacant buildings in the city and has secured them and cleaned all the trash on the grounds.
Barrett and other city staff also met with U.S. Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, Friday afternoon to discuss ways the federal government could help the city as it struggles with a potentially dangerous housing crisis.
On Friday morning, King visited the scene of two of the fires, an apartment building at 80-82 Pine St., which was being torn down, and an apartment building at 114-118 Bartlett St., which also was being demolished.
King also visited 149 Bartlett St., an apartment building that will be demolished Monday.
“I am going to see if there is some way to help,” he said, adding that some money may be available through the Federal Housing Administration.
In all, five buildings were planned for demolition by the end of the day Friday and three more will be taken down Monday, said Gil Arsenault, the city’s code enforcement officer.
King said it was “sobering” to see scenes of the fires, and praised the work of emergency responders, noting that nobody was killed or seriously injured in any of the fires.
“This is a shock for the city, but I think the city is already coming back,” he said.
Tom Bell can be contacted at 791-6369 or at